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Workers at the Musée Grévin in Paris detached the wax head of the figure of Vladimir Putin and locked it in a small wooden box. The likeness of the Russian dictator was recently removed from exhibition after visitors damaged it late February 2022. Museum employees hated working under his cold, plastic gaze. Museum director Yves Delhommeau told France Bleu radio that “…for first time in the museum’s history we are withdrawing a statue because of historical events currently underway.” They can no longer present a character like Putin. The statue, created in 2000, was removed to a warehouse until further notice. The Musée Grévin is considering replacing it with a statue of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
There are over 500 characters frozen in time at the Musée Grévin: not just politicians, good and bad, but personalities taken from French history and modern life. In the gallery that dashes through the history of France, there are original wax figures dating from the 19th century. A tableau of Marat shows him in his actual bathtub. Nearby is the knife Charlotte Corday used to kill him.
Contemporary international figures and film stars have been also been recreated. Over time, the Grévin has fabricated over 2,000 lifelike figures. Some of the wax models are shockingly well done, so uncanny they make one’s stomach flip. Some skip the mark completely. It’s hard to pinpoint why, but they’re a hair’s breadth too artificial and too shiny. A program is needed to identify even some of the famous.
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About half a dozen celebrities join the Musée Grévin every year. The gallery features models of Charles de Gaulle, and Asterix the Gaul, the Sun King, Queen Elizabeth II, the Little Prince, Lady Gaga and recent arrivistes like Bieber and Nick Jonas.
The Musée Grévin ranks as one of the oldest wax museums in Europe. Established in 1882 by Arthur Meyer, founder of the newspaper Le Gaulois, Meyer wanted his readers to see representations of the personalities and events found in the pages of his paper. At that time, images of newsmakers of the day were rare. For visitors to Meyer’s museum it must have seemed as if characters had sprung into three-dimensional life from the pages of Le Gaulois.
The museum is named for its first artistic director: the caricaturist, sculptor, and costume designer Alfred Grévin. On June 5th of 1882, the Musée Grévin opened in the heart of Paris at 10 Boulevard Montmartre, today accessible from the Passage Jouffroy in the ninth arrondissement.
As a direct challenge to Madame Tussaud’s wax museum established in 1835, the Grévin strived to distinguish itself from its London rival by representing Parisian life. The writer Jules Claretie satirized how the museum pandered to a fickle audience, proclaiming, “O glorious transitory wax figures. Celebrities of the day! Pantheon of the moment!” As seen from the museum’s recent inductees – and terminations – Claretie’s pronouncement holds true in 2022.
Wax sculpture was nothing new in 1882. Anatomists and those involved in creating religious iconography had used it since the 1600s. There are many frightening medical examples in the Musée Fragonard on the outskirts of Paris.
French painter and sculptor Antoine Benoist created the first example of a diorama of wax figures. His 1668 Cercle Royal was a wax version of the French court which he dressed in their usual pomp and glamour. King Louis XIV and his courtiers visited Benoit’s personal cabinet of curiosities.
Next came Philippe Curtius, the man most linked to the wax museum prototype. A physician skilled in wax modeling, he first honed his craft in his Swiss homeland. Curtius opened shop in Paris, first in the Boulevard Saint-Martin in 1770, moving on to the Palais Royal and then opening a second showroom at 52 Boulevard du Temple.
Amongst Curtius’ collection of wax busts featured luminaries of the day, including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Benjamin Franklin. Curtius included a cavern of thieves containing a who’s who of infamous criminals. Without a doubt, this was a precursor to the Chamber of Horrors at London’s Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Curtius’ student at the time was Marie Grosholtz, aka Madame Tussaud herself. During the horrors of the French Revolution, she was ordered to create waxen death masks of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre from their heads, still warm at the base of the guillotine. She inherited Curtius’ collection of models after her mentor’s death.
However, wax collections didn’t remain popular in Paris. Up until the rule of Napoleon III, the only place to see them was at the traveling fairs, which were forced to remain outside the Paris city walls. Therefore, waxworks became associated with a lowbrow form of entertainment. So, when Meyer opened his first wax museum in the 1880s, he went over the top to shake that reputation. He spent 2 million francs designing and decorating the vast space. Its design was borrowed from the Baroque and a kaleidoscopic hall of mirrors still remains as the intense introduction to the visitor’s experience. Designed by Eugène Hénard, the hall of mirrors was initially built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle as part of the Palais des Mirages.
If one were to wax poetic, the world inside the Grévin could be said to represent the fleeting nature of life. In 1887 the theater critic and man about town, Jules Lemaître, said of the museum, “all is wax and will melt sooner or later. A clear expression of the futility of objects.” However, at 140 years and counting, neither the Musée Grévin nor its reputation seem to be dissolving anytime soon.
10 Bd Montmartre, 9th arrondissement
Tel: +33 (0)1 47 70 85 05
Tickets from 20 euros per adult, 16 euros per child. Half-priced Wednesdays gets you a 50% reduction on a child ticket for the purchase of an adult ticket.
Lead photo credit : Musée Grévin entrance © Wikimedia Commons